California Split (Director: Robert Altman): In this 1974 film about two gamblers, Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliott Gould) bet on: poker, fights, horses, professional basketball, dogs, roulette, blackjack, craps, keno, slot machines and even a pickup basketball game. I suppose the bingo scenes didn’t make it into the final cut.
After meeting in a poker parlour, running into each other at a topless bar, and getting robbed by a fellow player who felt he’d been cheated, the two become fast friends. Bill is the more serious of the two. He holds down a job (barely) writing for a magazine, while Charlie seems to drift around. At the beginning of the film, he’s living with a pair of prostitutes, and life seems like one big party. It’s easy to see why Bill is pulled into his orbit, skipping work to join Charlie at the track, or, in one memorable episode, pretending with him to be vice cops in order to pry Barbara and Susan away from a rich cross-dressing client so they can take the girls to the fights. For Bill, whose gambling seems to have a grimness that hints at addiction, Charlie makes it all seem like harmless fun, even if they are losing (or getting robbed).
Charlie disappears for a few days, and it’s when his ramshackle anarchy is absent that we discover the depths of Bill’s gambling problem. First we see him slink into a massage parlour where he plays in an all-night illegal poker game. Then we become aware that he owes his bookie a significant amount of money, which he hasn’t got. As he sits in a bar next to a woman (possibly another prostitute) complaining about how her dog “shits on the floor all the time,” we realize how out of place he is in this world. He’s slumming, but he’s in the grip of something powerful. When Susan, the younger and more naïve of the two prostitutes, confesses her attraction to him, he runs away, horrified. Whether he’s ashamed of her lifestyle or of his own, we’re never sure, but this small chance at redemption slips away.
When Charlie returns, claiming to have taken a quick jaunt to Mexico to bet on some dog races, Bill has settled on a desperate plan. He’s going to sell all of his possessions, including his car, so that he can play in a high stakes poker game in Reno. Following one of the funniest scenes in the film (see the clip below), he agrees to take Charlie along as his partner. The fact that the two of them have to take the bus to Reno says a lot about their plight.
Rather improbably, Bill gets on a winning streak in Reno but despite all the indications of a happy ending, the film ends rather more realistically on a downbeat note. All luck is temporary, bad or good, and neither winning nor the friendship of Charlie can fill the yawning emptiness inside Bill.
Both Segal and Gould are excellent in their roles, and almost sell this as a buddy movie until they can no longer keep their heads above the despair. There’s plenty of humour in their odd couple routine and Altman’s seemingly shambolic direction contributes to the sense of fun. Charlie’s “I’m dancing as fast as I can” antics are almost entertaining enough to make Bill (and the audience) forget the real emptiness of their lives, especially in the early scenes when you feel like anything might happen.
Robert Altman made this film the same year as Thieves Like Us and in the midst of one of his own great winning streaks, from 1970’s M*A*S*H to Nashville in 1975. Incredibly, Elliott Gould was not the first choice for the role of Charlie. Robert De Niro was under consideration, and it almost went to Steve McQueen.
Another interesting bit of trivia. Most of the extras playing gamblers were from an organization called Synanon, a treatment program for junkies and other addicts, including gambling addicts. Altman didn’t want typical “Hollywood extras” and also figured he could get all these people for free, provided he made a donation to Synanon. The organization was criticized for some cultlike tactics and eventually disbanded in the late 80s after trouble with both the criminal courts and the tax authorities.